A prisoner with mental illness has a prolonged detention


In 2005, Steven Harris was charged with murdering his father, shooting three law enforcement officers, shooting into occupied vehicles, carjacking, and kidnapping. He pleaded not guilty in a Clay County circuit court, and the court ordered that he be held in custody without bail.

While Harris was in custody, his counsel requested a mental evaluation to determine Harris’s competency to face trial. Harris had a long history of suffering from schizophrenia. Doctors concluded that there was no substantial probability that Mr. Harris could be restored to competence to proceed legally in the foreseeable future. Harris returned to jail and awaited competency proceedings. The court held a hearing in 2010 and agreed with the doctors that Harris was not competent. It therefore ordered Mississippi to pursue civil commitment proceedings in the chancery court.

Importantly, the court also ruled on Harris’s detention status: He should be held until the determination of said civil proceedings. On the same day the circuit court removed Harris’s criminal case from its active docket (October 20, 2010), the chancery court dismissed the just filed commitment proceeding for lack of jurisdiction. It based that dismissal on the pending criminal charges—yes, the charges that had just become inactive—in the circuit court. The circuit court apparently never caught wind of the chancery court’s dismissal, sending Harris into legal limbo.

No one disputes that Harris remained in Clay County jail from that point forward. On October 25, 2010, Sheriff Laddie Huffman and Deputy Eddie Scott, the ones in charge of the jail, signed a “Diligence Declaration.” The declaration purportedly related to a separate indictment against Harris for assaulting a jailer while in custody. In that declaration, they said the following: “After diligent search and inquiry, [we] have been unable to find the within named Steven J. Harris in [our] county.” It appears that they submitted the declaration to the circuit court—further misleading the circuit court that the civil commitment proceedings went according to plan.

Fast forward to 2012. The district attorney prosecuting Harris’s case, Forrest Allgood, found out about the state court snafu. After putting the pieces together, he went to Sheriff Huffman to inquire about Harris’s confinement. This time Huffman acknowledged that Harris was still in jail but indicated that his mental health seemed to be improving. So Allgood submitted a Motion for Reevaluation to the circuit court, asking the court to again determine whether Harris was competent to stand trial. The circuit court never ruled on that motion, perhaps because the case was on its inactive docket, and Allgood never followed up. Harris stayed in jail.

Four more years passed with no change. That is, until a Mississippi news outlet started asking questions about the case. At that point, Scott, who had been elected Sheriff, reached out to the newly elected district attorney to try to push and get things moving in Harris’s case. And then—the day before the newspaper published its article—the district attorney filed a motion for the chancery court to reconsider its dismissal of Harris’s civil commitment case.

Things moved fast after the reconsideration motion. After holding that its earlier dismissal was inadvertent, the chancery court finally took up the civil case in June 2016. The court determined that Harris was a danger to himself and others, so it committed him to a medical facility. While there, Harris’s mental capacity was reevaluated one last time. The result was the same—he was not competent to stand trial and had no hope of regaining competence. The circuit court dismissed his criminal charges in 2017. Harris was released to his family soon after. He continues to receive medical care for his mental disorders.

Harris’s mother, on his behalf, sued District Attorney Allgood, Sheriffs Huffman and Scott, and Clay County under § 1983. The suit alleges that the defendants violated Harris’s Fourteenth Amendment due process rights by unlawfully detaining him for years. The complaint also contends that, at one point, Huffman held Harris down and forced him to take unwanted medication. As to Clay County, Harris argued that Sheriffs Huffman and Scott were final policymakers, making the county liable under Monell.

The district court first dismissed Allgood from the case, concluding he had absolute prosecutorial immunity and qualified immunity. It came out the other way as to Huffman and Scott. It denied summary judgment to Clay County too, finding that there was strong evidence that Huffman and Scott were final policymakers for the county.

Next, the court addressed the forced medication claim. It granted Huffman qualified immunity, concluding that Harris did not prove that the sheriff’s actions violated clearly established law. The court did, however, let the medication claim proceed against Clay County as municipal liability claims do not require plaintiffs to prove a violation of clearly established law.

So after summary judgment, the following claims remain: the detention claim against Huffman, Scott, and Clay County; the forced medication claim against Clay County alone. Huffman, Scott, and Clay County appeal.


A. Jurisdiction

A1. Huffman and Scott

This court does not have jurisdiction to decide the genuineness of factual disputes. But we can determine whether those factual disputes, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, are material to the application of qualified immunity. And we limit our jurisdiction to just that—whether, viewing factual disputes in the light most favorable to Harris, Huffman and Scott violated clearly established law.

A2. Clay County (detention and forced medication)

Unlike the sheriffs, municipalities do not enjoy immunity. We thus have repeatedly refused to treat summary judgment denials involving municipalities or officers sued in their official capacities as appealable collateral orders. Therefore, we lack jurisdiction as to claims against Clay County on appeal.

B. Constitutional claim against Huffman and Scott

The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits a state from confining a criminal defendant solely on account of his incapacity to proceed to trial for more than the reasonable period of time necessary to determine whether there is substantial probability that he will attain that capacity in the foreseeable future. If there is no real probability that defendant will become competent, the state must institute civil commitment proceedings—to gauge the dangerousness of the defendant— or release him. See U.S. Supreme Court case Jackson v. Indiana, 406 U.S. 715 (1972).

Harris’s prolonged detention violated Jackson. The sheriffs do not push back much against the notion that the Constitution required Harris’s release. They instead mostly argue that they are not responsible for any constitutional violation. Any fault, they contend, lies with the courts or prosecutor.

Courts, including ours, have rejected jailers’ just following orders defenses in cases with much briefer unlawful detentions. See Jones, where we found when a detention was pursuant to a valid court order, detaining a defendant for nine months without bringing him before a judge offended his due process rights. Also see Jauch, where we held that “prolonged detention”—96 days— without the benefit of a court appearance violated the detainee’s Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.

Harris did not see a judge from October 2010 to June 2016. A few days after Harris should have been released, Huffman and Scott signed the declaration testifying that Harris was not in the jail (this in a relatively small county with approximately 20,000 citizens and roughly 100 inmates at a given time). That lie allows a factfinder to infer that Huffman and Scott were covering something up—that they knew there was no longer any basis to hold Harris.

Thus, the length of time Harris was held without a pending hearing—substantial as it was—is not the only basis for tying the sheriffs to the due process violation.

The sheriffs ignore that commit or release order and instead argue that they were detaining Harris pursuant to a different court order. The order they refer to is the initial order to detain Harris issued after his bond hearing in April 2006. It cannot be that the initial detention order in a case overrides subsequent release orders and allows jailers to indefinitely hold defendants without consequence.

Taking the evidence in Harris’s favor, Huffman and Scott violated his due process right by detaining him for six years in violation of the commit-or- release rule and the circuit court’s order enforcing that rule.

C. Clearly established

We start with the entrenched commit-or-release rule: An incompetent defendant, who has no reasonable expectation of restored competency, must be civilly committed or released. See Jackson. There is no wiggle room in that principle. Its line is as bright as they come. It is also clear as day that Harris’s detention after the October 2010 dismissal of his civil proceeding violated Jackson’s rule.

In Jauch, we recently held that it has been established for decades that a sheriff can be liable for the unlawful detention of an inmate.

The sheriffs, however, point to two differences between Jauch and this case. First, they argue that unlike Jauch, Harris was brought before a judge at the beginning of his case. It was at that hearing that the court denied bond for Harris, which they claim was sufficient process under Jauch. But the case Jauch relied on for the clearly established right against “prolonged detention” without court access shows that it is not limited to defendants who never had an initial appearance. Jones had a hearing during which some charges were dismissed (police had arrested the wrong person) before his nine-month detention that violated due process.

The second Jauch distinction the sheriffs point to actually shows that notice of unlawfulness is much stronger in this case. Jauch was indefinitely detained pursuant to a court policy, while Harris was not. In other words, the Jauch sheriff did have a just-following-orders defense. Yet that excuse did not allow him to defeat qualified immunity. If a sheriff who complies with a court’s policies can be liable for holding an inmate in violation of due process, then it necessarily follows that a sheriff who violates a court order can be liable for a due process violation that results from that defiance.

We DISMISS Clay County’s appeal for lack of jurisdiction and AFFIRM the district court’s denial of summary judgment as to Huffman and Scott.